early childhood

How one small Indiana city sees child care as a potential economic driver

PHOTO: Fuzzy Bear Ministry Preschool and Daycare
A teacher reads to students at Fuzzy Bear Ministry Preschool and Daycare in Ladoga, Indiana.

In the small city of Crawfordsville, Indiana, Mayor Todd Barton has traced the local workforce shortage back to a surprising problem: the lack of preschools, day cares, and after-school programs.

In his two terms as mayor, he has been pitching and promoting Crawfordsville, a blue-collar city of about 16,000 people that serves as the economic hub for a rural area some 50 miles west of Indianapolis. He has traveled to Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Japan to talk about jobs and try to lure investors. He’s looking to improve the city’s housing, transportation, dining options, and other quality-of-life aspects.

But as he hears from local employers that they can’t find workers to fill hundreds of jobs, particularly in skilled positions, Barton said he also hears from residents that they can’t find or afford somewhere for their children to go while parents are working.

The difficulty of finding child care poses a barrier to wooing new businesses and workers, retaining young professionals, and connecting unemployed adults with jobs.

“We know we have a challenge,” Barton said. “The question is, how much can we impact it?”

So expanding quality child-care options has become Barton’s latest economic development project. And he’s leveraging a popular argument for early childhood education: the workforce benefits.

In Indiana, the burgeoning conversation on early learning hasn’t necessarily been driven by the educational value alone. Thanks in part to a critical push from local businesses, it’s also been about how high-quality prekindergarten can create attractive climates for businesses that want to recruit, help families get back to work and school, and foster the next generation of workers.

“As we’re recruiting folks to come to Indianapolis, the expectation of those who we are recruiting is, ‘Hey, we want our kids in a strong learning environment,’” said Michael O’Connor, director of state government affairs at Eli Lilly and Co. Lilly is among the Indiana businesses that invested in Indianapolis’ pre-K program and also advocated for the state-funded pre-K program for low-income families, known as On My Way Pre-K.

Indiana is spending $22 million this year to provide pre-K to about 4,000 4-year-olds from low-income families in 20 counties. But On My Way Pre-K is still in its early stages, and advocates have estimated 27,000 Hoosier children from low-income families, many in more rural areas like Crawfordsville, lack access to pre-K.

The economic angle will likely play a key role as advocates push to continue funding and potentially look to expand On My Way Pre-K in the 2019 legislative session, a budget-setting year.

The workforce argument for early childhood education is not new, nor is it unique to Indiana. But in this economic-minded Midwestern state, it’s been particularly persuasive in building public investment in pre-K, and raising the profile of early learning opportunities in general.

Showcasing the return on investment in pre-K, O’Connor said, was critical in garnering early support from lawmakers skeptical of the academic value for children and whether early gains would last.

“We had to get past this fundamental belief of, ‘you’re asking us to subsidize day care,’” O’Connor said. “And the way in which we wrestled that was this economic argument.”

In addition to tracking outcomes for children, state officials and researchers at Purdue University are also studying the effects of On My Way Pre-K on families. In the most recent update last October, the state found the program is reaching many children who had not previously been in child care. Slightly more than one-third of surveyed families said their children would not have attended preschool if they hadn’t qualified for On My Way Pre-K.

Parents are also required to be working or in school in order for their children to enroll in On My Way Pre-K. The survey reported that with access to pre-K, some parents were able to find new jobs or start school, increase their work or school hours, stay in a current job, search for a new job, or obtain better shifts at work.

With unemployment rates at a low point in Indiana — 3.2 percent in May, under the national unemployment rate of 3.5 percent — it’s becoming tougher, and more critical, to find new workers. That’s bringing additional interest from employers to pre-K, said Jeff Harris, director of public affairs for Early Learning Indiana, a nonprofit that advocates for early childhood education and runs preschool centers.

“People often say it’s a two-generational strategy, but it’s more,” Harris said, explaining that employers could see smaller benefits, too: fewer absences at work, less turnover of workers, more availability for night classes or other development opportunities.

In Crawfordsville, Barton said local employers are interested in the child-care issue, which they have been discussing at monthly economic development meetings. But many of the city’s largest employers have headquarters elsewhere, making it more difficult to address the issue on the ground.

Chalkbeat could not reach local contacts for comment at some of those businesses, including Penguin Random House, a book publishing company; LSC Communications, a printing company; and Pace Dairy, a dairy processing facility for Kroger.

For Barton, a Republican, his first challenge will be to determine the shortage of child care spaces and the demand for them. He said he plans to look to current providers to expand or improve in quality.

Like many of Indiana’s small and rural areas, Crawfordsville and surrounding Montgomery County simply lack child-care capacity for any ages, let alone high-quality options. Only about a dozen child-care providers in the county are registered with the state, with few on the state’s Paths to Quality rating scale and even fewer in the top quality tiers.

“It would be wonderful to have a lot of day care options and be able to review where you want to send your child based on the quality of the programming, but the reality is there just aren’t many day care options available, period,” said Brandy Allen, director of planning and community development in Crawfordsville. In supporting the economic development effort, she has also shared her personal experience of struggling to find child care.

School leaders say they’re willing to help, but are crunched for funding such efforts.

“We all have early childhood programs or preschools,” said Scott Bowling, superintendent of Crawfordsville schools. “But the limitation there, really – the funding is an issue. I hate that it always has to go back to that, but it always does.”

The state provides some funding for preschoolers with disabilities — but otherwise, districts often dip into their state funding for K-12 to support pre-K or afterschool programs. It’s yet to be seen whether lawmakers will choose to expand and increase funding for On My Way Pre-K, which is not available in Montgomery County.

“The investment that we do make in pre-K is worth it, that’s why we put in the effort. But it’s hard to go too far with that without hurting the K-12 side,” Bowling said.

Similarly, districts are tight on funding for improving the quality of their programs, said North Montgomery Schools Superintendent Colleen Moran.

On My Way Pre-K is an incentive to reach higher quality standards, since the state only allows the funding to go to providers at the top levels of its ranking system, called Paths to Quality.

“We haven’t gone a step further because we don’t have to, and there isn’t any more money to make facilities up to that high 3 or Level 4,” Moran said.

Quality poses perhaps a tougher obstacle than quantity. Supporters like Moran, Bowling, and Barton all want to build quality early childhood programs that go beyond training providers in basic health and safety to providing a planned curriculum that supports child development. Some early learning advocates even say that a low-quality program can be worse than no program at all.

But in a place like Crawfordsville, it’s a struggle to make quality part of the discussion.

In the southeast corner of Montgomery County, Fuzzy Bear Ministry Preschool and Daycare in Ladoga has received several grants to expand and improve in quality. The preschool has moved up to a Level 3, the second-highest rank on Paths to Quality, and is now working toward accreditation in the hopes of rising to Level 4.

Preschool director Kim McVay said improving the quality was “the right thing to do” to better serve children and families. She said she sees an increase in professionalism from teachers, who have received more training.

But as much as she touts the quality of the program — it’s one of just two Level 3 providers in the county — McVay said that’s not usually a deciding factor for families.

“It all comes down, 90 percent of the time, to the bottom dollar,” she said. “If we’re charging more than somebody else — nope, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

Her biggest battle, she said, is educating the community on why it’s important to have high-quality early learning.

“Paths to Quality is not understood as well as it would be in some place like Indianapolis where they have it everywhere,” McVay said. “It’s going to take time. You’re not going to change overnight the mindset that you’re starting out with.”

Early education

Is Tennessee moving its weakest teachers to early, non-tested grades? New research says yes.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Tennessee’s education insiders have whispered for years that some elementary school principals were moving their least effective teachers to critical early grades, which are free of high-stakes tests. That’s despite clear evidence that those years are the most important for preparing students for a lifetime of learning.

Now a new study has confirmed that the shift is real.

Researchers examining 10 years worth of state data through 2016 found that low-performing teachers in grades 3 through 5 were more likely to be reassigned to non-tested early grades than their more effective peers.

The findings, released Friday by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance and Vanderbilt University, may be an important piece of the puzzle in figuring out why almost two-thirds of the state’s students are behind on reading by the end of the third grade.

“These trends matter because having effective teachers in the early grades helps establish a foundation for success as students progress into later grades,” the research brief states.

The authors used Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system, including classroom observation scores and student achievement data, to track the reassignment of elementary school teachers by their principals. They found that only a hundred of the lowest-rated teachers were shifted to the lower grades in any given year, making for a relatively small impact across Tennessee. However, the pattern was consistent for all reassigned teachers who scored in the bottom three evaluation ratings on a scale of 1 to 5.

It’s not conclusive, though, whether those teachers remain ineffective when moved to kindergarten, first, or second grades.

“This could be counter-productive, but it could actually be productive if school leaders are finding better fits for their elementary school teachers,” said Sy Doan, who authored the research brief along with Laura K. Rogers.

Another study is in the works to examine whether students’ academic growth is stunted by re-assigning less effective teachers to lower grades.

Like other states, Tennessee doesn’t require testing until the third grade, when student scores are used to begin gauging the performance of students, teachers, schools, and districts.

But research elsewhere has shown that the pressures of such accountability systems for higher elementary grades can unintentionally give administrators incentives to “staff to the test” and move their weakest teachers to the early years.

“The patterns we found in Tennessee are consistent with similar studies conducted in other states,” Doan said.

Advocates of early education say the latest findings — while not surprising — should be a powerful reminder to school administrators that kindergarten through second grade are high-stakes for students’ learning and development, even if those years are free of high-stakes testing.

“I think it’s going to raise some important conversations,” said Lisa Wiltshire, policy director for Tennesseans for Quality Early Education. “If we want to improve third-grade outcomes, Tennessee has got to start prioritizing investments in the early grades, particularly in the quality of teachers.”

Sharon Griffin, a longtime Memphis school administrator who now leads Tennessee’s school turnaround district, made that point last week during a presentation to state legislators on the House Education Committee.

“When I was a principal …. there was this unprecedented norm where you would put your most effective teachers in grades that are tested,” she said. “Now we know from lessons learned that it’s really pre-K, kindergarten, first and second grades where you need the strongest teachers, so that our kids can be on grade level by third grade and we are not trying to close the gap continuously from third grade on.”

Tennessee has done some serious soul-searching about why most of its third-graders can’t pass the proficiency bar in reading, which is considered the foundation for learning and success in all subject areas.

The frustrations deepened in 2015 when a landmark Vanderbilt study showed that academic gains achieved by students in Tennessee’s public pre-K classrooms were fading out by first grade and vanishing altogether by third grade.

Since then, the focus has been on why. Is it the quality of pre-K? Or could it be missteps and misalignment in instruction and curriculum from kindergarten through the third grade?

Upcoming research will dig into those questions as other Vanderbilt researchers visit Tennessee classrooms next school year to observe instructional quality and teaching practice in the early grades.

“We know surprisingly little about the connections among the experiences children have across the early grades of school,” said Caroline Christopher, who will co-lead the work with Dale Farran, director of the Peabody Research Institute.  

Their study will be funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted through the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a partnership between Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and the Tennessee Department of Education.

early childhood discipline

New Colorado bill aims to keep young students in school — even after they misbehave

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat

Last school year, Colorado’s public schools handed out nearly 6,000 out-of-school suspensions to young children. 

This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed legislation that could reduce those numbers — the latest push in a four-year effort to get early childhood discipline reform across the finish line.

The bill introduced Wednesday would limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through second grade to certain circumstances, including if they bring weapons or drugs to school, or are deemed a safety threat. It would also require schools to exhaust other alternative discipline options before removing students from school. Finally, the bill would limit suspensions to three school days.

If passed, the law would take effect July 1, 2020.

While the bill would apply to all public K-12 schools, it would apply to only some preschools — those housed in school districts or charter schools, as well as community-based programs serving children eligible for certain kinds of public funding, such as state preschool dollars.

The behavior that gets little kids suspended varies, but can include biting, kicking, fighting or causing frequent classroom disruptions.

Across the nation, boys, children of color, and children with disabilities receive a disproportionate share of suspensions.

In Colorado, the disparities are pronounced. Last year, for example, young boys received 86 percent of K-2 suspensions though they made up only half of the K-2 population.

Black students, who made up just 5 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received nearly 12 percent of K-2 suspensions last year. Students with disabilities, who made up 10 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received 37 percent of K-2 suspensions.

The Colorado Department of Education tracks suspension data for public schools, but not for preschools that operate outside of public schools.

Opponents of suspensions and expulsions say sending kids home from school for acting out doesn’t help them learn appropriate behavior, increases the likelihood they’ll be suspended again, and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

But school district leaders who’ve pushed back against discipline legislation have argued that limiting suspensions takes away one of their few tools for addressing disruptive and violent behavior. They’ve also expressed frustration about the lack of staff and resources, especially in small rural schools, to handle students’ mental health needs.

This year’s early childhood bill is similar to one that was defeated in 2017, but allows schools a little more leeway in doling out suspensions and expulsions. For example, the earlier bill would have allowed expulsions only when young students brought guns to school. Now, there would be several reasons a young student could be expelled.

Likewise, the previous bill would have allowed suspensions only if a student endangered others, but didn’t specify that bringing drugs, controlled substances, or weapons to school could also be grounds for suspension.

The earlier bill faced sharp opposition from rural school district leaders, among other groups. It ultimately died in a Republican-controlled committee.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said the coalition of groups that worked on the latest bill tried hard to incorporate feedback from critics while staying true to their goals.

“We’ve done our best all along the way to be responsive,” he said.  

Besides broadening the grounds for out-of-school discipline, the latest version of the bill delays implementation by a year.

Jaeger said that delay will allow state-level mental health and funding initiatives in the works now to trickle down to school districts and give districts more time to adapt local discipline practices.

K-2 Suspensions by District

This chart shows the number of suspensions given, not the number of students suspended. In some districts, individual students receive multiple suspensions during a school year.